|Saddam and the Yugoslav
By David Isenberg
the furor was
winding down over the reported acquisition by Iraq of
Kolchuga air defense radars from the Ukraine, a new
controversy over Iraqi weapons acquisitions has burst into
view; namely, the purchase of spare parts for
Iraqi fighter jets from a firm based in Bosnia-Herzegovina and
assistance from Yugoslavia in organizing Iraqi air
Although the news is just now making
the rounds, the story itself first broke over a month
ago. According to the UK Sunday Times, highly skilled
officers were sent from Yugoslavia to help Saddam.
Reportedly these are the same people who performed
impressively during the 1998-99 Kosovo war, when their
use of supposedly outdated technology helped much of the
army’s hardware to escape destruction by American
On September 20, the Banja Luka
Reporter of Serbia ran a three-page article noting that
the US government had issued a demarche, a diplomatic
official concern, concerning the Orao Aviation
Institute in Bijeljina, part of Bosnia. According to
the demarche, the institute had helped maintain
the Iraqi air force and the air defenses that have so
often been up against US and British fighter aircraft
patrolling the no-fly zone. Such aid would violate UN
Security Council resolutions.
The article noted
that the institute, located 100 kilometers west of the
Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, could also be maintaining
jet engines for Iraq and possibly supplying engines or
engine parts for the MiG-21 Fishbed fighters and,
theoretically, perhaps, for the MiG-23 Flogger. Some
things could have been sent from Bijeljina, and some
things could be done on site by Orao's technicians.
The institute has been in existence in one form
or another since 1944, when it was known as the Aviation
Workshop No 169. In 1957, it became the Aviation
Technical Maintenance Institute, taking on the task of
maintaining jet engines, and later moving on to
turbo-jet engines. Apart from maintaining engines for
domestic jets, it also serviced Tumanski jet engines for
the Soviet supersonic MiG-21, which was the main fighter
interceptor of the Yugoslav Air Force and the air
defense wing of the JNA (Yugoslav People's Army). In
1988, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
(SFRY) procured from the Soviet Union a squadron of
modern MiG-29 Fulcrums, and the institute embarked on a
program to maintain the aircrafts' engines.
Given that history, the Orao institute could be
of great use to Iraq. Iraq has the MiG-21 and the
MiG-29, and it is known that the military industry of
former Yugoslavia cooperated closely with the Iraqis. In
1989, Iraq sent at least eight MiG-21Bs and nine of the
newer MiG-23MLs, which the former JNA did not have in
its arsenal, to be repaired at the Zmaj Aviation
Technical Institute at Velika Gorica near Zagreb. The
repair work on the engines for these Iraqi MiG-23s could
not be carried out in just one location in the SFRY -
some engine parts were serviced at Zmaj, some in
Slovenia, and the maintenance of the turbines was
carried out at Orao.
It should be remembered
that even if the charges were true, Iraq would not have
gained a lot. Even if Iraq's fighter aircraft were in
the best possible state (which they are not), the Iraqis
would stand no chance against American air forces who
are much better equipped and trained.
But if the
charges are true, it is just the start. This is
because the Orao Aviation Institute is not your ordinary
private sector firm. Organizationally, it comes under
the Ministry of Defense of the Serb Republic, and it is
headed by an officer in the Serb Republic Army, Colonel
Milan Prica. If assistance has indeed been given to
Iraq, it is highly improbable that the relevant
officials in the Serb Republic Government did not know
about it. And it is at least questionable that the UN
Stabilization Force (SFOR) did not know about it.
Some experts believe that Iraq helped Belgrade
by giving it some information as it prepared its air
defenses against the NATO strikes in 1999 during the war
over Kosovo, and that Serbia passed on its latest
experiences in air defense to Iraq. Iraqi experts are
certainly interested in how the Yugoslav army succeeded
in bringing down a stealth F-117A.
On October 22, it was reported
that Yugoimport, a major Yugoslav weapons dealer, had
exported military equipment to Iraq, and Serb experts
were helping Saddam Hussein defend Iraq's air space against
US attacks. Yugoimport is based in Belgrade.
is in Republika Srpska, the portion of
Bosnia-Herzegovina whose population is mostly Serbian.
Until Bosnia won its independence with a war that ended
in 1995, both companies were part of Yugoslavia's vast
During a NATO
inspection on October 11-13, NATO peacekeeping troops in
Bosnia raided the facilities of the Orao company and
discovered several documents allegedly linking the
company and the arms dealer with weapons exports to
Iraq. A NATO spokesman said a preliminary inspection of
Orao uncovered the existence of a contract linking the
factory to an "unreported export of weapons systems".
According to the Belgrade-based daily Blic,
which first reported the discovery, the documents
indicate that an unspecified number of Yugoslav experts
are currently assigned to install the equipment at an
undisclosed Iraqi military facility.
Yugoslav Defense Ministry said in a statement that it
had not approved the export of arms to Iraq and that it
would investigate the alleged breach of the UN arms
embargo and "undertake measures against possible
culprits". A high-ranking Yugoslav military
official confirmed the Blic report to Associated Press
and said that Yugoimport "acted as an intermediary
between Orao and the Iraqi government. Orao did not have
contacts [in Iraq], so they approached Yugoimport."
enjoys a virtual monopoly in the export and import of
arms and is known for having had close links with
Saddam's regime during the 1990s. Yugoimport denied the
Blic report in a statement but added that "it is
possible" that some Serbs have been involved in "a
private business venture" with Iraq in the name of
In an interview with BBC Yugoslavia
published Oct 25, Yugoslav President Vojislav
Kostunica addressed some of the allegations: "When we
came to power in October 2000, we knew very well what
state of affairs we had inherited. We know today, as we
did then, that we were under sanctions for 10 years and
that the economy, despite the sanctions, had to function
somehow. Therefore it is mean and hypocritical for
anyone to pretend to be extremely surprised and almost
offended because someone in all likelihood - and in this
case it is Yugoimport - violated UN sanctions by
continuing old practices."
The BBC also is reporting
that as early as the 1970s, the Yugoslav Federal
Directorate for Trade in Special Purpose Products (now
Yugoimport) began cooperation with Iraq, when
construction companies were contracted to build a major
arms factory near Baghdad.
continued until the 1990s, when the United Nations
passed a resolution banning arms exports to Iraq. A
meeting between Major-General Jovan Cekovic, director of
Yugoimport, and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Taha Yassin
Ramadan is alleged to have taken place at that time.
According to some unofficial sources, at that meeting a
deal was struck on the export of weapons manufactured by
the aviation institute in Bijeljina.
documents uncovered by NATO also allegedly indicate that
in the case of a UN inspection, Yugoslav experts
currently in Iraq would dismantle the equipment within
10 days, and that the Iraqis would be expected to hide
it until the inspectors were gone, Blic said.
Western officials familiar with the
documentation say that Yugoimport had gone to great
lengths to cover up its work, while at the same time
reassuring Yugoslav and Serbian officials that nothing
was being sent to Iraq. According to the Blic article,
in a letter addressed to the Iraqi Department of Defense
dated September 25, Yugoimport officials "asked the
Iraqis to remove Orao's name from all of the documents
used for maintenance, and to take off Serbo-Croatian
language instructions". The letter also allegedly told
the Iraqis to obliterate the Orao company logo, which is
stamped on equipment.
In addition, the letter
reportedly said that "in the event of United Nations
weapons inspections, Yugoimport's experts would be able
to disassemble all of the equipment within 10 days and
that the Iraqis then should hide the equipment. When the
inspections are over, Yugoimport would again assemble
the equipment within 10 days."
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial at the
UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, allied himself
with the Iraqi president, but current
president Kostunica said the country had since severed those
Under Milosevic, Yugoslavia maintained
close military links with Saddam's regime, servicing
Iraqi air force MiG jets near Belgrade and taking part
in the construction of Iraqi military facilities,
including bunkers in presidential palaces in Baghdad.
The Yugoslav army earlier this month said that it had
discontinued providing military aid to Baghdad, saying
that it hoped to forge closer ties with NATO. Earlier
this month, Kostunica denied that Yugoslav military
experts were helping Saddam organize his air defenses.
On October 22, the United States raised the
stakes beyond the repair of Iraqi planes, saying that it
had presented evidence to senior Serbian government
ministers of much broader military collaboration,
including assistance with air defense networks,
surface-to-air-missile technology and munitions.
As the scandal has escalated in recent days, the
Yugoslav government has engaged in damage control
efforts. On October 22, the Yugoslav government released
a statement saying that it had dismissed Jovan Cekovic,
the former army general who chairs Yugoimport, and fired
Yugoslav Deputy Defense Minister Gen Ivan Djokic, an
assistant to the federal defense minister in charge of
military equipment and weapons. Yugoimport was ordered
to close its office in Baghdad, according to the
But those dismissals are
not likely to be the only ones. The sale of weapons and
military equipment to Iraq was under direct control of
military security services, which in the view of some
experts means that the chief of the Counterintelligence
Service, General Aca Tomic, too, must have been familiar
with the deals. Under the current system of military
affairs, arms exports fall within the authority of the
Defense Ministry. Through General Djokic, the chain of
command would lead upward to Defense Minister Velimir
Radojevic. According to Belgrade Radio, Radojevic has
already prepared his letter of resignation, but he has
been warned that he should not make any statements to
the media until further notice.
government also announced that it would set up a
commission to investigate whether there have been
irregularities in the defense ministry in the process of
issuing licenses for exporting military equipment and
arms and, if so, to propose adequate measures.
There are still many questions to be answered.
Among them, according to a special report by Jane’s
Why did the UN approve Yugoimport, a
well-established arms producer, as a major supplier of
grain to Iraq during its humanitarian "food-for-oil"
program? Yugoimport is known to have supplied Iraq in
the past with Orkan multiple rocket launchers and to
have upgraded Saddam's MiG-23 fighters (until this week,
Yugoimport still had an office in Baghdad), so why was
an arms supplier chosen over other firms with
more-obvious track records in grain exports?
Why did the Kostunica
government allow Yugoimport to continue its activities
in Iraq for two years without question? The Yugoslav
interior minister is head of the Yugoimport board, so
how can the government not have known about Yugoimport's
Former Deputy Defense Minister Ivan Jokic, sacked
this week following the US allegations against
Yugoimport, stated in January that Yugoslavia would be
focusing on the export of its military "know how". What,
therefore, has Yugoimport been exporting to Iraq?
has the ability to keep Iraq's MiG fighters flying, what
other military know-how has been transferred?
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